Country roads that shined like silver streams in the full moonlight carried us down into the deep valley of Muddy Creek Forks. It was a cold spring night. We stopped in front of a large stone house with a small sign that read "Spring House." The front door opened and a woman, shadowed by the porch light, walked out to greet us.
In silhouette, she stood like a proud pioneer woman, dressed in a long skirt and shawl, her hair piled high in a loose bun. Ray Constance Hearne invited us into her inn, warmed by a wood stove. Upstairs, a small parlor stove heated our room, filled with a sweet smell from two small orange peels resting on the stove. An antique patchwork quilt covered the spool bed. There was a bowl of red York apples on the sill of the window that looked out over downtown Muddy Creek Forks, population 17.
We had driven north two hours from Washington, but it seemed as if we had traveled back two centuries in time.
Muddy Creek Forks lies in the center of southern York County, a small wedge of Pennsylvania just across the Maryland line that escaped development. Scotch-Irish pioneers settled here in 1720. A few of their two-room log shelters still stand after 250 years. Their descendants still work the Pennsylvania Highlands and fly fish for trout in Muddy Creek. The Amish, who settled across the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County, are growing tired of the commercialism in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Now many families are crossing the river to buy land around Muddy Creek Forks and farm in peace. Progress is intruding. Local hiking clubs are cutting trails along the Susquehanna. In places, the wide river is dammed into huge lakes dotted with islands that Amish teen-agers use for camping.
For denizens of cities like Washington that can grow claustrophobic on summer weekends, Muddy Creek Forks and its neighborhood offers a touch of country peace. There are paths for strolling, streams for skinny dipping, creeks for trout fishing or canoeing and usually a farm sale or two every weekend where an auctioneer sells everything from tractors and egg graders to oil paintings and oak dressers. Ray Hearne turns out to be a good guide both for peace of mind and a piece of country living. Her bed and breakfast is the only way station in the area.
Ray Hearne is a newcomer. She came alone in 1971 from her home near Baltimore, in search of a stone house in the country. She discovered Spring House, vintage 1798.
"When I first came to the valley, the real estate agent said I wouldn't like the house because it looked like an old stone ruin," she said. "I thought 'Aha, that's just what I'm looking for.' " She paid $13,000 for the house and a few acres. Then wall by wall, floor by floor, room by room. She worked as a solitary artisan to restore the house. It took 10 years.
Ray offered tea and sherry as we sat at the dining room table by the wood stove. Only the lines that crinkle around her eyes when she smiles give away her 37 years. The eyes are light blue and sad at times. Her long hair is the color of straw and always worn up, except for wisps that curl around her neck. She moves quickly but lightly and stands with her head slightly tilted back. The blush in her cheek and strong hands hint at a life of hard work.
"It was very easy for me to sweep away the debris," said Ray, adding that she hauled away three truckloads. "I could look right past it. But even now it's hard for me to visualize the work I did and still do."
First the walls. Chipping away paint like an archeologist, Ray uncovered original stencils. In the main bedroom these 18th century hieroglyphs float like faded snowflakes over an entire wall. On damaged walls, Ray filled holes with wads of Sunday newspapers, then replastered and whitewashed with an old recipe of finishing lime, salt and vinegar.
The upstairs has four simple rooms, each furnished with local antiques and Ray's touch: a watercolor here, a breakfront filled with spools of yarn there, and in the main bedroom, an e.e. cummings poem copied in her sister's hand. The bathroom sink and tub have polished brass fixtures. On the first floor, the low-ceilinged main room serves as dining room and living room. Through a low doorway there's a music room with accoutrements: a grand piano, a bugle, assorted bamboo flutes, recorders and a dulcimer. In the back, Ray's expansive kitchen is anchored by her wood cook stove that looks like the front of a small locomotive.
Art hangs on every wall. Peggy Kurtz, Ray's friend from Westminster, Md., painted a few murals amd some new stencils. John Suplee, an artist from New England, lived at Spring House for a year and a half. His oil paintings, often landscapes of the house, are all over, and he returns twice a year.
Perhaps it's because Ray crafted the house herself. Perhaps it's simply that she is that proud pioneer woman. For whatever reason, she succeeded in her goal: "I don't want the place to look like a Williamsburg museum. I want it to look lived in. I like things to show their life."
Opening Spring House to guests for bed and breakfast was not Ray's plan at first. While she restored the house, she worked in York, but when she finished the restoration, she decided she wanted to spend time at the house. Two years ago, she took in her first quests. Some have returned four or five times. "Then they become one's cousins," said Ray, bidding us good night. We fell asleep to the shadows of flames from the wood stove dancing on the walls of our bedroom.
By morning, the fire in our stove was cold. Downstairs, Ray was stoking the cook stove--she prides herself on cooking everything from scratch--and making breakfast. Warmth and the smell of fresh baking beckoned.
This morning, after a glass of local apple cider, the main course was a Flying Dutchman pancake. The pancake actually served only as a vessel for a smorgasboard of Ray's homemade toppings: wineberry preserves (the lane where she picks wineberries is a secret), wild black raspberry syrup, honey from Ray's beehive, apple sauce and maple syrup. "When I serve out on the porch," Ray said, "breakfast goes on for hours." This affair lasted almost until noon, then Ray took us to the hill through a small stand of pines behind the house for a look at Muddy Creek Forks.
Across the deep, lilliputian valley, two roads wind down out of the hills and fork over a small bridge. Under the bridge, the North and South forks join to form Muddy Creek, which continues east to the Susquehanna River. The town thrived in the 18th century as a way station along the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad. Now, only a village store in a rambling house and a series of three white clapboard warehouses remain, just across the creek from Spring House. This time of year the creek is a milky jade color and good for canoeing or catching trout.
Ray started to tell us about the townspeople, but she had to return to the house and prepare for other guests, so we explored southern York County.
Heading east, we passed through a town called Airville, announced by a discreet sign that read, "Named for Pure Air in the Neighborhood." Riding on roads that rose and fell through hills and hollows, we came to Woodbine, a hamlet of houses and barns arrayed around a white clapboard church with a bell tower, slate roof and black trim. We crossed a bridge over Muddy Creek and rose out of the valley to Bald Eagle and Fawn Grove.
The woman who pumped gas at the Phillips station said everyone was down at a farm sale in Grove Mill. We followed her directions down a road that took us to another small village, and once again we encountered Muddy Creek, the South Fork. On the other bank, a cluster of people gathered in front of a house with its furniture spread on the lawn under a big apple tree. Garland Van Dyke, a local farmer, had just died at the age of 78, and Robert L. Sechrist, a local auctioneer, was selling the farm, tractors and all.
Sechrist looked through his Coke-bottle glasses and tapped a thin bamboo cane to start the bidding on the next oak dresser or drop leaf table. Farm families dickered over old stoves. Bearded Amish men stood like statues with their hands rammed into the pockets of their black frock coats. They stared under flat-brimmed black felt hats, but never bid. We almost bought a portable egg grader but lost to an elderly woman who probably knew how to use it.
That evening we headed north to have dinner at the Accomack Inn, which overlooks the Susquehanna River just above Wrightsville. On occasion, Ray Hearne will cook dinner at Spring House, but usually she sends her guests to a number of good restaurants in Wrightsville or York. The 45-minute drive, much of it along the river, is worth the trip. The Susquehanna was calm as a millpond and almost even with a flat stretch of road called Long Level. We reached the inn just as the moon rose in a lavender background and the sun set behind the hills, coloring the river pastel peach.
The inn was polished, a bit self-consciously, and jarring after the intimacy of Spring House. The food was good but expensive. Much of it was flaming. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Allegro Vineyards, 1980, was excellent and made by two expatriate Washingtonians. We discovered, in fact, that southern York County is gaining a reputation as the East Coast's Bordeaux district, because of its long growing season and perfectly drained hillsides.
Next morning, after breakfast with Ray and two couples who had arrived the previous afternoon, we set off for Allegro Vineyards, a few miles up Frosty Hill Road in the town of Brogue. We met Tim and John Crouch, two brothers from Washington who chucked their lives as musicians in Washington to pursue their dream of making fine wine. They began making wine in 1973 with a kit. By 1978 they were cultivating 20 vines in their backyard, and later that year they began looking for their vineyard. They chose the hills in Brogue for their exposure and drainage, and moved up with their mother, Marguerite, a year later. The winery is new and functional, rather than old and quaint.
John, the 35-year-old oboeist, greeted us in the tasting room and took us for a tour of the casks and racked wine and oak barrels, many imported from France. We sampled as John explained why he became a viniculturist. "Music was getting to be a hassle," he said. "We went into this with the idea of making a living and enjoying what we wanted to do. Now music is a hobby and not a hassle."
Now the chore is tending grapes: Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay Beaujolais, for example. In their first two seasons, 1980 and 1981, Tim and John made four wines and won a slew of medals in state competition. Last year they processed 25 tons of grapes and made more than 3,000 gallons of wine. Their goal is 10,000. The brothers are good and getting better with age.
"Let's face it," said John, sweeping sandy hair from his forehead, "Bordeaux took 2,000 years to develop its reputation. How do you compete?" Right now the brothers compete with two other small wineries in the neighborhood--Naylor Wine Cellars and Stephen Bahn Winery. Since John was all out of the 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon, we bought a bottle of peach desert wine called Opus I and headed back to Spring House.
The day had turned bleak. A spring storm lashed Muddy Creek Forks, but inside Spring House, Ray Hearne was making lunch: soup from her canned tomatoes, cheddar cheese from the Amish farmers' market and homemade bread.
Though she's traveled the world, Ray has roots in southern Pennsylvania, and she's settling in to stay at Spring House. One of six children, she was raised on a small dairy farm in Chester County, near Philadelphia. "I always feel it's my house," she said, "even when there are people here. Maybe it's because I grew up in a large house with a big family and lots going on."
That afternoon, we split a few hunks of oak into small pieces for the cook stove. Ray was making Cornish hen for supper and preparing for more guests. After just two days at Spring House, we found it hard to think of leaving, but we did. Ray came out on the porch to wave goodbye as we crossed Muddy Creek and climbed the road of the valley and back to 1983.